BRENT DOERNER: Cranking the Decibels (Exclusive interview!)

This is another old one.  I did this interview back in 2007.  Brent Doerner, who had quit Helix in 1990 and again in 1993, was about to dip his toes back into music again with a smoking hot new band called Decibel.  I met Brent at a Helix show at Molly Bloom’s and we kept in touch.  Brent rejoined Helix in 2009 staying until September 29, 2012.

Brent Doerner:  Still Cranking the Decibels

One of the most iconic images in Canadian rock is from the music video Rock You, by Helix.  You know that image.  The guitar solo kicks in, and the guitar player emerges from the water, Gibson in hand.  Anybody who has seen that video should remember that solo.  It’s just one of those things:  an image that’s etched into our rock and roll memories.  It clearly stated who this band was, and what their purpose was.  They were here to rock you.

That guitar player was Brent Doerner, who played on and wrote many Helix classics.  Brent Doerner left the band in 1990, but never quite left the Helix family.  He rejoined the band briefly for their It’s A Business Doing Pleasure album, and has made guest appearances on many of their CDs since leaving the band.  If you picked up a CD like Back For Another Taste, B-Sides, or even the recent Rockin’ In My Outer Space, you’ll hear Brent playing.

Aside from these guest shots, Brent’s been fairly quiet musically until now.  He took up a lucrative career in carpentry, moonlighting as a country guitar player in various bar outfits.  Honing is chops via his newfound love of country, Brent felt the urge to write some songs.  In late 2006, he was ready to make some noise again.  The result is Brent Doerner’s Decibel, which is both the name of his new band and new album.  It’s an album he’s very proud of, and justifiably so.  For him, it’s all about songwriting.

“If you don’t write good songs, it ain’t gonna fly baby,” he says after inviting me in for a beer.  Brent’s passion for songwriting is nothing new.  While Paul Hackman and Brian Vollmer wrote the majority of Helix originals, Brent did write (and sing) some of their classics.  Continuing about the art of songcraft, he stresses if you can’t write, “that’s it, it’s over.  You can be the best players in the world, and it won’t save you.  A lot of guys could play like the wind, or drum like the wind, [but can’t write].”  Focusing his writing, the result was an album of what Doerner calls high-energy rock.

Decibel is a record of unique songs.  The lyrics are fun, out of leftfield, and catchy.  The guitar playing is hard, with the smoothness picked up from his country gigs.  Some of the songs are quirky, bringing to mind vintage Guess Who.  It’s been a true labor of love for Brent Doerner, who’s been working on these songs for the better part of a year.

“I was bound and determined, come hell or high water, to make an album.  I bought a 24 track, one of those digital things, and I said, ‘I’m making an album, I don’t care how I do it.’  I still had all my guitars, or some [at least], and I just started writing.”  He also hooked up with his new band, consisting of Shane Schedler on lead guitar, Chick Schumilas on guitar, and Dan Laurin on drums.  There’s even a smattering of guest appearances on the CD.  Perhaps most exciting is a guest shot by Brent’s twin brother, and ass-kicker on the drums, Brian Doerner.

Interestingly, with Brent playing guitar, the band has three guitar players.   Brent tells the story:  “We kind of like the idea of three guitars in the band, with a bass player and a drummer.  I met these other guys, Shane, Chick and Dan, when I was living alone in my house.  I was writing songs, and going at it with a vengeance, really.  These guys kept coming by to my house and saying, ‘We got all these songs too!’  I got to their hall, with some beer, and I sat down, and they blasted away for a friggin’ hour, just earthquake volume.  When they’re done, they say, ‘Well what did you think of the songs?’  And I said, ‘Well I didn’t hear any songs, just all this music.’”  The band responded with, “Well we did the hard part.  You just have to write the melody and the lyrics!”

Brent continues, “But they were bound and determined in the end that they wanted three guitars.  And what’s happening with me when I lead sing is, I stop playing so I can sing, because some of this stuff I can’t sing and play over it.  I can sing and play over a lot of shit, but it seems that I can’t sing and play over some of the stuff that I wrote!”  Brent points out On Bended Knee (one of the album’s highlights) as one in particular that is hard to sing and play at the same time.

Even though Brent’s been singing since 1978 with Helix (that’s him on Billy Oxygen and Crazy Women, among others), he wasn’t too keen on singing this time out.  “I didn’t really want to be the singer.  We kind of looked around for singers.  That’s how we got Hills (Hilliard Walter) on one song and Shane on the other.  I was trying to sing Dancin Frogs and I knew I was failing.  I’m not that great of a singer, really.  So he came in there, and I was making Hills nervous by standing there, because he’d never even heard the song before.” Deciding to leave Hills alone for a moment, “we went outside for a smoke, came back and he was done.  Three takes, he’d never heard the song before, I thought that was pretty friggin’ good.  And he picked his own melody, he didn’t follow what I tried to teach him.  He roughly, loosely followed.”  The improvised vocal is one of the highlights of the album.  Hills Walter is well known in the Kitchener music scene for his strong soulful voice and versatility.

The aformentioned Dancing Frogs is one of the coolest, most unique moments on the record.  Surprisingly, according to Brent, it almost didn’t make the album.  “I didn’t want to present it to the band, because I didn’t think it fit the rest of the album.  We were short songs, we wanted 12 and we only had 11.  I had this one sitting around for a while, so I sang it, and they said, ‘That’s fuckin’ cool!  Put that on there!’  So we just tried to make it a little heavier, play some double leads…there’s no lead solo in that song. Instead of playing a big fancy lead solo, we threw in a couple ‘oogha’ [car] horns!”

Brent thought that the vibe of the song evoked the classic image of the dancing frog from the Warner Brothers cartoon One Froggy Evening.  “You can just picture the dancing frog with the top hat and the cane!”  The song is subtitled The Zamboni Song because Hills actually drives one!  “We’ve got the best damn Zamboni operator/driver/singer/lead vocalist in the country, man!”

Doerner reveals that he’d like to get Hills into the band, full-time, as a bass player.  “He’s got some screwed up hours on that Zamboni though.  He’s got to go in at like 4am or 5am!”

Songwriting wise, Brent is really turned on by writing lyrics.  He likes to find inspiration in a variety of places, writing down phrases that catch his eye, and figuring out a way to work them together into songs.  On Bended Knee, he says, was inspired by Shakespeare.  The Sum of 2 People was pieced together using math phrases he found on the internet.  “I worked really hard at getting unique titles.  I’ve never heard a title before even close to that, and I want unique titles so I can have unique songs.  When I wrote it, I wrote the chorus first because I liked the title.  When I have my chorus I can go ahead and write my verses because I know what I’m going to be writing about.”

He strove to make the song unique musically as well as lyrically.  “I used 6/8 time, and four unusual chords put together in repetition.”

In general, Doerner likes a little humour in his lyrics.  “There’s no killing, there’s no blood, there’s no death in the lyrics anywhere.  If anything there are tongues in cheeks, all over the place.  I just couldn’t picture myself singing about death and destruction, I’m not that way.  A lot of these songs are love songs in a funny way.  Dancin Frogs is a love song.  That guy frog really likes that chickie frog!”

It’s not all just lyrical fun with the Decibel boys though.  There’s quite a lot of instrumental goodness going on too.  A song that Shane sings called Never Turn Yer Back features a neat bass part actually performed by Brent.  “I play that.  I play the intro and the exit on that.  That’s from me being a guitar player, it sounded cool on bass.  We had a bass player play the rest of the song.  Mikey (Mike Benedictine), we had him come up from Hamilton, for free, drove up here, learned the songs and recorded a couple of them, and drove home, just to say he was going to be on this record.”

On an album of many highlights, A Body For You stands out.  The riff came from Chick.  “When I met Chick, he had that, and the intro too.  A Body For You is the first song I’ve ever written on all my albums that I didn’t write the guitar part to.  I wrote the lyrics and the melody to Chick’s guitar lick, except the chorus.  So I was just going, ‘Wow!  I’ve never tried this before and it’s working!’  He’s just all rock, Chicky.  He only wants to write high-energy guitar rock.  He doesn’t want to get too fancy.  And you’ll notice there are no slow songs on the album.  Let somebody else put slow songs on their albums, thanks!”

For the fans who like to try to figure out the licks, there’s a lot going on with this record.  “The other guys in the band were getting brain cramps figuring [the songs] out.  I was using double-stop country style, double picking, and they had a hard time getting on to that.  It was a new technique to the rockers!  And that’s what got me into the rocking again, was learning something new.  I kind of got tired of the rock for a while because I wasn’t learning anything new.  And then I got into the country, and I got fired back up again.”

Brent’s been listening to a lot more than just country.  He lists some of his favourite newer artists:  Audioslave (he loves the character in Cornell’s voice), Shinedown, and Evanesence among many.  The last three CDs he bought were Nickelback, Cheryl Lescom, and (of course) Helix.  In particular, he’s inspired by Kurt Cobain, although he missed the Nirvana train the first time out.  “I was doing my country thing at the time, so I wasn’t really listening to Nirvana.  And I now know why Nirvana is so popular.  I really like his songwriting style, his lyrics.  Why are they still on the radio?  You hear them every day like you hear Led Zeppelin every day.  And there’s gotta be a reason.”  The conclusion, he reasons, breaks down to the core once again:  good songwriting, unique songwriting.  These are goals to which Doerner aspires.

Rock and roll thrives in the live setting.  Brent Doerner is eager to get out there and play some gigs.  He had a blast at the Helix 30th anniversary show, when he joined his old bandmates for some of his classic songs.  However, it didn’t come easy.  “I practiced a lot for that gig because my guitar playing was really rough, I hadn’t been playing enough.  When I knew that I was going to be playing in front of a whole bunch of people…I mean, the songs I wrote on those Helix albums, I don’t run them over every week!  I had to run over them a bunch of times to remember my own songs.  I don’t play my own songs all the time.”

And will we hear any Helix at Decibel shows?  Billy Oxygen, perhaps?

“I wrote that one.  We’re talking about playing it live.  We only have nine songs that we put on the album, and I wrote Billy Oxygen, and I wrote Crazy Women, so we were thinking of adding those two to the set.”

Either way, a Decibel show is sure to be a good time, if the band’s rehearsals are anything to judge by.  “It’s too much fun, I tell you, when our band gets together it’s like the friggin’ Decibel Comedy Hour.  Do you think you can get a word in edgewise?  We get together, it’s just a friggin’ laugh.  I don’t know how it can be so funny, but it is, every time, about anything.”

Be sure to catch Brent and the boys live.   Pick up the CD.  Play some air guitar to it.  You’ll be glad that you did.

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